When Switzerland became one of the last Western European nations to legalise same-sex marriage in 2021, it made waves next door in the tiny Alpine country of Liechtenstein.
Two days after the Swiss vote, lawmakers signalled near-unanimous support for same-sex marriage during a parliamentary session in the principality, one of several European microstates that trail their neighbours on LGBTQIA+ equality laws.
This year, the nation of fewer than 40,000 people is also due to host its first Pride event.
“I guess it’s always been like this; we’ve always waited for bigger countries to take the initiative,” Stefan Marxer, a board member at Liechtenstein’s only LGBTQIA+ group, Flay, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Catholicism is the official religion in the principality, which advocacy group ILGA-Europe rates 40th of 49 observed European countries when it comes to legal protections for LGBTQIA+ people, just behind Romania and Ukraine.
Only Malta scores highly among Europe’s microstates on LGBTQIA+ rights legislation – clinching the top spot in the ILGA rating.
Under Liechtenstein’s current laws, same-sex couples can access civil unions granting them some economic and social benefits, but cannot adopt, and there is no specific legislation for transgender people to change their legal name and gender.
Liechtenstein’s monarch, Prince Hans-Adam II – who can veto any new legislation passed by parliament – has opposed extending marriage rights to LGBTQIA+ couples if that meant they were granted the same rights to adopt children as heterosexual couples.
“If two homosexuals adopt some boys, that’s not unproblematic,” he said in a radio interview last February, adding that children have a right to grow up in a “normal family”.
Liechtenstein’s government declined to comment.
Despite the prince’s remarks, Marxer said pressure for change was mounting.
“All the German-speaking countries except for Liechtenstein have opened marriage for same-sex couples. It’s time for Liechtenstein to do the same,” he said.
‘Winds of change’
Religion and tradition also hold heavy sway in the tiny states of Andorra, San Marino and Monaco, fellow laggards when it comes to LGBTQIA+ rights protections, according to ILGA-Europe.
The governments of Andorra, Monaco and San Marino also declined to comment.
San Marino, which is rated 42nd by ILGA-Europe, only lifted a ban on same-sex sexual relations in 2004 and there are no LGBTQIA+ advocacy organisations in the northern Italian enclave.
Instead, Paolo Rondelli, the republic’s only openly gay member of parliament, said he had joined the local chapter of Arcigay, Italy’s biggest LGBTQIA+ group, in the neighbouring city of Rimini.
But Rondelli said “winds of change” from bigger countries were starting to sway San Marino’s “conservative traditions”.
A referendum to enshrine a ban on homophobic discrimination in the constitution gathered 71.46% of the vote in 2019. Last year, San Marino voted to legalise abortion.
It could still take time for politicians to put LGBTQIA+ equality – including same-sex marriage – on their legislative agenda, Rondelli added.
“Most MPs come from Catholic parties, so speaking about LGBTQIA+ rights isn’t their first priority, even though most of them voted in favour of civil unions in 2018,” he said.
In Andorra, a microstate sandwiched between France and Spain in the Pyrenees, the Catholic Church has sought to put limits on pro-LGBTQIA+ reform, campaigners said.
Andorra, which is headed by two co-princes – the French president and the Roman Catholic bishop of Urgell, in the Spanish region of Catalonia – passed a far-reaching gay civil unions law in 2014 but stopped short of using the term marriage.
“The only reason why it isn’t called gay marriage is because the bishopric (the bishop of Urgell) won’t accept it,” said Loan Poulet, a 33-year-old Andorran educator and writer who has written a book for children covering trans issues.
He said large numbers of immigrants to the country had helped change attitudes, and – due partly to the broad civil partnerships law – Andorra is ranked 26th by ILGA-Europe.
Still, LGBTQIA+ rights advocates said the political establishment showed little urgency for deeper reform.
“Andorran institutions are reluctant to acknowledge that our bigger neighbours have an influence on us, because it’s a small country that wants to keep its own identity,” said Rocio Soler, president of Andorra’s only LGBTQIA+ group, DiversAnd.
Low rates of crime, including homophobic or transphobic attacks, in the principality of 77,000 people may also explain the dearth of legislation enshrining LGBTQIA+ rights, she said.
“Because you don’t hear about violence against certain groups, people think that we’re fine, that we don’t need anything else,” said Soler, adding that the country’s size might partly explain the persistence of conservative attitudes.
“The fact that we all know each other increases the social pressure and makes it harder to come out,” she said.
LGBTQIA+ people in wealthy Monaco said they also found it hard to be open about their sexuality in the city-state, which lacks anti-discrimination laws and bans same-sex marriage and adoption. Gay civil unions were recently approved.
The principality of some 40,000 people is ranked 45th on LGBTQIA+ equality by ILGA-Europe – the lowest of the microstates. The Vatican, the world’s smallest country, was not included in the survey.
More than 40 men living or working in Monaco, where Catholicism is also the official religion, contacted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation through a gay dating app said they felt uncomfortable about coming out.
Wim Prior, a Belgian man who has founded a Gay Lifestyle Association (GLAM) in Monaco with his partner, said a low-key gay scene was taking root.
“The word discretion is a very important word in Monaco,” he said, adding that attitudes were starting to change.
“Monaco is really open and safe.” he said.
In Liechtenstein, LGBTQIA+ rights advocates hope Switzerland’s landmark vote will turn signs of progress into legal guarantees.
Elia Deplazes, a 32-year-old Swiss trans man who lives in Liechtenstein, was able to find legal security under his home country’s newly passed pro-LGBTQIA+ laws, which include a trans self-ID regulation which took effect this month.
Deplazes, who married a man and had a child before coming out as trans, has been assured by Liechtenstein’s state-run human rights body that both his marriage and parenting rights will be respected due to the Swiss legislation. “It’s going be the first time in the history of this country that this happens,” he said.
Featured image: A demonstrator during a protest against a law that bans LGBTQIA+ content in schools and media at the Presidential Palace in Budapest, Hungary, June 16, 2021. Photo: Reuters/Bernadett Szabo/Files
(Thomson Reuters Foundation)